Morocco’s ‘mule women’ face new strug­gle

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - REGION - By Hamza Mek­ouar

FNIDEQ, Morocco: Af­ter years of back-break­ing toil, Fatima alHanani now fears be­ing re­duced to beg­ging in the street be­cause of Morocco’s clo­sure of its bor­der with a Span­ish en­clave to thou­sands of “mule women.”

The im­pact has been felt on both sides of the fron­tier, with the Moroc­can porters who lugged duty-free Span­ish goods left out of work and shops clos­ing as liveli­hoods dry up for traders.

“They want to turn us into beg­gars,” says Hanani, who had spent all her work­ing life trans­port­ing heavy loads from Ceuta to the town of Fnideq in the North African king­dom.

Like thou­sands of other Moroc­can women – and also men – she would cross ev­ery day into the Span­ish en­clave and come back laden with mer­chan­dise for traders.

Goods brought on foot through the crossing on a hill look­ing over the Mediter­ranean are not sub­jected to im­port du­ties, un­like those brought by ve­hi­cles.

But four months ago, Morocco sud­denly stopped porters from crossing, in a move aimed at curb­ing the en­try of con­tra­band.

“Busi­ness was good be­fore,” says Hanani, who is in her 50s, but now “there is no more work.”

Nick­named “mule women,” the Moroc­can porters would of­ten be seen bent dou­ble, over­bur­dened by goods ap­proach­ing or ex­ceed­ing their own body­weight.

‘I DON’T MAKE MONEY’

Rights groups re­peat­edly de­nounced the work as “hu­mil­i­at­ing,” say­ing it was tan­ta­mount to traf­fick­ing tol­er­ated by the au­thor­i­ties. At least four women porters were tram­pled to death in 2017, in stam­pedes at the bor­der post – the only land fron­tier be­tween the EU and Africa.

But it was vi­tal work for Hanani, who says she has raised five chil­dren on her own thanks to the long­tol­er­ated prac­tice.

Now she sells trin­kets in a souk in Fnideq.

“I don’t make any money any­more,” Hanani laments, her wares spread out on the ground.

The de­liv­ery of bun­dles of clothes, food prod­ucts and house­hold goods cre­ated busi­ness that ben­e­fited the econ­omy on both sides of the bor­der.

Porters and shop­keep­ers say they are now wait­ing for al­ter­na­tive em­ploy­ment.

Mean­while, a metal gate blocks the pas­sage for porters at the bor­der crossing, un­der the watch­ful eye of the Moroc­can guards.

‘ENOR­MOUS IM­PACT’

The Moroc­can au­thor­i­ties have talked a lot about the need to reg­u­late the in­for­mal sec­tor, but have largely kept mum about the change.

Nabyl Lakhdar, the coun­try’s di­rec­tor-gen­eral of cus­toms, told lo­cal daily L’Economiste in Jan­uary that the con­tra­band hurt Morocco’s econ­omy by de­stroy­ing its pro­duc­tive sec­tor.

Lakhdar called the porters “the first vic­tims” of the smug­gling, say­ing “cer­tain mafias” prof­ited from their “pre­car­i­ous­ness and some­times from their suf­fer­ing.”

In 2018, Ceuta au­thor­i­ties and traders launched an ini­tia­tive en­cour­ag­ing the women to use trol­leys in­stead of car­ry­ing the heavy weights on their backs.

But with­out the porters, the econ­omy in Fnideq and Ceuta is just barely tick­ing over.

“The im­pact is enor­mous,” says Ab­del­lah Hau­dour, a shop­keeper who sells Span­ish blan­kets on the Moroc­can side.

“Prices have gone up, pur­chas­ing power has gone down. There are no more cus­tomers,” he says, show­ing his empty till. “Many have left the town.” The nor­mally packed bus sta­tion, used by those pick­ing up goods from across the bor­der, is de­serted. “I now earn a third of what I used to,” says Mi­moun alMoura­bit, a 67-year-old driver sit­ting on the bon­net of his ve­hi­cle.

At the be­gin­ning of Jan­uary, a Moroc­can par­lia­men­tary re­port rec­om­mended cre­at­ing an in­dus­trial area to pro­vide new jobs for the porters. But “who will em­ploy 50year-old, il­lit­er­ate ‘mule women’?” asks Hau­dour, the shop­keeper.

The Moroc­can move has also caused a “se­ri­ous trade cri­sis” in the Span­ish port city, the Con­fed­er­a­tion of Ceuta En­trepreneur­s (CECE) said in mid-De­cem­ber.

At the en­trance to the bor­der crossing, cor­ru­gated iron hangars house all types of goods, sent by boat from con­ti­nen­tal Europe to Ceuta.

The crux of the trade took place here. Ja­mal, a gro­cer, says the cri­sis is un­prece­dented and that his turnover has col­lapsed.

“Our prod­ucts are ex­pir­ing,” he says as he dis­plays his un­sold goods.

Rachid, 48 years old, says from his shoe shop: “Stores have shut. Busi­ness is at a stand­still. We are wast­ing our time.”

Both men de­cline to pro­vide their sur­names.

“If this con­tin­ues, I will have to close,” Rachid says.

“We de­pend on the Span­ish au­thor­i­ties. We’re pro­tected by the so­cial se­cu­rity sys­tem. But what about the Mo­roc­cans?”

“Busi­ness was good be­fore,” says Hanani, who is in her 50s, but now “there is no more work.”

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